Compassion Fatigue: Is it Relevant for Your Characters?

We know the importance of making our characters authentic, believable, and memorable for readers. But relevance is important, too, because it makes them relatable. Readers see characters who are facing the same issues they’re facing or dealing with the same struggles they’re dealing with, and a bond is formed. 

As an example, look at To Kill a Mockingbird. It was written in 1960, but this story about children navigating a racially-charged culture that is altering their safe and comfortable world is still relevant to us almost 50 years later. 

Are your characters relevant?

Relevance in your stories is about finding an element for your character or story that your reader can relate to in the real world. It might be heavy (a theme, social or political issue, moral quandary, or mental obstacle) or minor (a hobby or interest, dominant character trait, or common missing human need). Either can be effective. And if you can come up with a common thread that hasn’t been used a million times, that’s always a plus. 

To that end, I’d like to share a real-life malady I’ve recently learned about that may be incredibly relevant to readers today.

Introducing “Compassion Fatigue”

When Angela and I were writing The Occupation Thesaurus, we were researching the nursing career and stumbled over a term we’d never heard before: compassion fatigue

Exhaustion, emotional withdrawal, apathy, or indifference experienced by those who have been exposed to repeated trauma, tragedy, and appeals for assistance

This condition is all-too-common in occupations where people are constantly exposed to trauma (e.g. first responders, social workers, journalists, therapists, animal welfare workers). The frequent exposure to horrible events inherent in these jobs leads to a necessary psychological withdrawal as these workers try to distance themselves from what they’re seeing. While a certain level of withdrawal is healthy, serious cases can lead to problems on the job, relationship conflict, and debilitating mental conditions like PTSD. 

Well, you might think: that’s interesting, but my character doesn’t have that kind of job

Due to the 24-hour cycle of social media and news networks, compassion fatigue is becoming much more widespread. The public’s constant exposure to the suffering of others—sometimes on a hard-to-fathom scale—is taking its toll. 

Compassion fatigue presents with the following symptoms:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion 
  • Moodiness
  • Increased apathy
  • Lack of focus
  • Weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Isolation
  • Feeling hopeless or powerless
  • Loss of interest in things that once brought joy
  • Self-blame (for not doing more)
  • Decreased efficiency at work
  • Denial

This should give you an idea of how detrimental compassion fatigue can be. You may even recognize some of these symptoms in yourself as you navigate the constant barrage of news coverage. This malady is becoming more common, and therefore more relevant, for today’s readers. As such, it might be something that could work in your story, but as with any real physical or emotional affliction, it needs to be handled responsibly and thoughtfully.

Questions to help you decide:

1. Does It Fit for My Character?

The first consideration is whether or not compassion fatigue actually works for your character. We’ve all seen the results of authors trying to force certain habits, personality traits, or emotional responses onto their cast members. The inauthenticity is almost unbearable, leading to a disconnect with readers. 

As with any other aspect of characterization, you have to do your homework and make sure it makes sense for the character. Compassion fatigue might be a reasonable outcome for someone who…

  • works in a job where trauma and tragedy are frequent.
  • lives, works, or volunteers in a war zone or area of high crime.
  • is a caregiver to a chronically or terminally ill loved one.
  • consistently sees trauma second-hand (on the news, social media, etc.).
  • is highly empathetic and compassionate to begin with.

Basically, if your character consistently witnesses circumstances that naturally arouse their empathy but they’re unable to do anything about those situations, they’re at high risk for compassion fatigue. If this is the case for your character, it may be something that can be written into your story.

COOL TOOL TIP: If your character works in a field where compassion fatigue is high or if you’re looking into those careers, The Occupation Thesaurus can lighten your research load. Each entry includes an overview of the job, necessary training, skills and personality traits that will make the job easier, common sources of friction, the job’s possible impact on basic human needs, and ideas for twisting any stereotypes. Work smarter, not harder :). 

2. Have I Done My Research?

As a real ailment, compassion fatigue needs to be represented accurately. If you’ve suffered with this condition, you’ll have firsthand experience and it will be easier to write. If you haven’t, get to work researching. 

  • Find people who have dealt with it and talk to them. 
  • Read medical journals and legitimate sources on the topic. 
  • Join discussion groups and online communities to find first-person sources. 

Gather the information you need so you can write this condition accurately and realistically for your character.

3. Does It Serve My Story?

Like any physical or mental ailment, compassion fatigue doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It will have far-reaching effects on your character that will impact your story, so it should only be included if those effects serve your purposes. Here are a few natural outcomes of compassion fatigue that might do your story some good:

  • It Provides Organic Conflict Options. Insomnia, lack of focus, moodiness—the symptoms of compassion fatigue are going to cause problems for your character at work. Likewise, increased apathy and withdrawal will make it harder for them to connect with loved ones. Good stories require conflict in every scene, and compassion fatigue can provide that conflict at home, on the job, and everywhere in between.

TOOL TIP: The Conflict Thesaurus at One Stop for Writers has been almost doubled to include over 200 scenarios that can drive your story’s arc and push the protagonist toward much-needed change. If you know the kinds of conflict your character’s compassion fatigue will create, you may be able to find them in this thesaurus. If you’re unsure, the TOD for this collection is a great brainstorming resource. For more information on how The Conflict Thesaurus can be used to strengthen your story, check out this bite-sized video.

  • Compassion Fatigue Impacts Human Needs.Basic human needs are universal to everyone. They’re important to us as authors because when one of them is threatened or removed, it becomes a motivator, driving the choices and actions for your character. Compassion fatigue can impact many of these needs. So whether you want your character to make a monumental error, hit rock bottom, or recognize their need for change, it can be used to position them exactly where you want them.
  • It Contributes to Character Arc. What changes does your character have to make in order to grow and evolve by the end of the story? Maybe she needs to learn that she is as important as the people she serves, and she needs to take better care of herself. This might relate back to a wounding event she’ll need to finally confront and deal with—one where she was devalued or mistreated in some way. If compassion fatigue can tie into any of this, it will make it easier for you to map out that arc.

Final Thoughts

Compassion fatigue is just one example of an element that could provide a sense of relevance for your readers. If you can find that one element to connect your character with today’s reader, it won’t matter how different they are in gender, age, race, time period, or geographic location. It will be enough to start that empathy bond that can carry readers all the way through the story to make sure the character comes out okay.



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